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Picture Perfect

E


Timeline: Post-220
Rating: NC-17
Genre: Angst, romance
Author's Note: Justin and Brian are confronted with a physical reminder of prom.

Two – An Exhibition of Developments
 

Brian was well aware of the importance of breathing. It was essential to life, this process of inhaling and exhaling. So he wasn’t quite sure why, for several moments, he didn’t seem to be able to do this simple process. And truth be told, he really didn’t even notice that he was holding his breath; every cell in his brain was trained on the 8-by-11 inch page on the table, the image upon which was blazing into his brain.
 
It was only when he felt something being pushed into his hand that Brian came out of his daze. He looked at the half full glass of water for a moment, staring at it as if it he expected it at any moment to give him the answers to the questions swirling around in his head. Brian glanced up at Justin, who had not taken his eyes off him.
 
“Drink.” Justin’s voice was soft. “You look like you could use it.”
 
Brian’s breath and voice came back to him all at once, and he eyed the glass in disdain. “I think I need something a lot stronger than this, Sunshine.”
 
“Uh . . . well, I think they may have some Kahlua or amaretto here. Stuff like that.” Justin rested his chin in his hand. “If you want to wait another two hours, the lounge in the student union starts serving Old Pitt on special. I may not be able to get in, though . . . they card over here, and my fake ID’s looking pretty ragged.”
 
Brian weakly shook his head. Watered down beer would hardly do at a time like this. Right now, now he needed something hardcore, something that would dull his senses immediately. And since his old standby Jim Beam wasn’t readily available . . .
 
Brian gestured at Justin’s cup. “I’ll take one of whatever that was.”
 
The teen looked taken aback for a minute, and then he smiled. “Hot or chilled?”
 
Brian considered a moment. “I don’t want it cold.” He needed to hold something hot in his hands, something to warm his numb fingers.
 
“Uh . . . with or without whipped cream?”
 
Brian was silent, calculating the amount of time he’d spent on the treadmill that morning and added in the visit to the gym with the boys the night before, and decided he’d earned an empty calorie or a few . . .  hundred. “With. Go all out.” He made a motion toward his back pocket to grab his wallet, but Justin’s warm hand over his own stopped him.
 
“Don’t worry about it. I’ve got it.” Justin stood from the table and stretched. “Be right back.”
 
The teen’s footsteps echoed in Brian’s ear, mingling with the words echoing in the older man’s mind. Justin’s words. And then . . . you’d tell me that you loved me . . .
 
Brian stared down at them, at the picture – their picture. It all seemed so long ago: Justin looked so young, innocent . . . the boy was glowing. And he looked . . . well . . . Brian studied his expression with a critical eye. If someone had shown him a picture like this, if he’d seen the expression he was wearing on another man’s face, he would’ve shaken his head and expressed pity for the poor fuck that was so obviously “dick-whipped” and wearing his heart on his fucking forehead.  But the poor fuck was him, and Brian couldn’t believe it, couldn’t believe he’d let his guard so completely down that way, broadcasting his feelings for everyone to see. Though Brian remembered that at the time, he didn’t give a fuck about everyone – just Justin. He’d wanted Justin to see it and understand the place he held in his life and in his heart. And Justin had understood; Brian could tell by that beautiful smile that the teen had deciphered the look on his face and realized that . . . that . . .
 
And  then . . . you’d tell me that you loved me . . .
 
 Brian rubbed the bridge of his nose, pinching to keep away the tears that were forming at the corners of his eyes. He’d left himself so wide open, so vulnerable. Here he was in a closet-like college eatery literally staring at proof that he’d exposed the chink in the armor he’d spent a lifetime building, and yet, in the end it hadn’t mattered. Just minutes after that photo was taken, Justin’s head and his heart had been shattered. And nothing – not a damn thing – had been right since . . .
 
Needing to turn his eyes away from that other self, that other him, grinning on the page, Brian flipped to the beginning of the article, glowering at the photo of the columnist. Who the fuck was – he glanced at the name again -- Teren Longner to do this? Put this out here now? Where was she with this picture when Justin was beginning his rehabilitation from the bashing? Hell, where the fuck was she with this picture two months ago when Justin was out screwing – ah, making sweet love to – the Fiddler? Why this now? Why now when it was over . . . and when Brian didn’t feel he had the strength or the inclination to make himself so vulnerable again, and when there was no way in hell that Justin would ever look at him with such love and trust shining in his face again? Where the fuck was all this then?
 
The more he thought about it, the angrier he became: The bashing and his and Justin’s . . . relationship up to that point had been fodder for straight and gay press alike – each using the prom story to suit their agendas; much of the gay press held the prom up as the symbol of the ongoing war against queers. The straight media presented the prom incident as a cautionary tale as to what would happen to those nasty fags who dared tried to purport to have the same rights as straight people. All of it had been tiring, frustrating, and hurtful. And now this girl was poking at the wound again, and for what? Brian’s brows knit as he toyed with his sunglasses. Justin had said the article was about coming out . . . what had they to do with anybody’s coming out? And a dyke’s at that? What the fuck was that about?
 
He’d meant to skim the first few paragraphs in an attempt to find an answer to that question, but something in the very first paragraph gave him pause. He read it over again, slower this time, the sounds and smells and voices around him fading as he was drawn into the words:
 
I’ve known I’ve loved girls that way since I was 12 and in love with my best friend’s sister. I used to dream about her and other girls, wanting to know what it would be like to kiss them or hold them or touch them down there and everywhere. I never had a thought about a boy, at least, not the same thoughts I had about girls. I tried to stay away from them, in fact, because just being around them made me nervous. That’s why it’s so weird to me to think that the trigger point for my coming out to my family, the reason I decided to be truthful and stop hiding, was because of  . . . a boy. A boy I really didn’t know.
 
His name’s Justin. Justin Taylor. We went to high school together. He’s queer and he’s out, and because of people like me, he almost died.
 
“Cinnamon?”
 
“Fuck!” Brian jumped back, nearly sending his sunglasses to the floor. He scowled up at Justin, who was, in turn, looking at him nonplussed. “What?
 
“Sorry . . . I didn’t mean to startle you,” Justin said quietly. “I just wanted to know if you wanted cinnamon in your chocolate. It makes it a little less sweet. Gives it a little kick.”
 
“Oh . . .” Brian bit his lip at the look on the blond’s face, and felt a twinge of remorse. He hadn’t meant to snap at him, but to say he was seriously on edge was a gross understatement. “Whatever. You know what I like, Sunshine.” He gave the boy a small smile, and was glad to see it returned before the teen turned away again.
 
Brian looked after him for a moment, the smile still lingering on his lips, before turning back to the page:
 
It’s weird saying that I didn’t know Justin, because for a long time – three years – I thought I did. Everyone at St. James Academy knew everyone else . . . or at least you thought you did. It was called a tight-knit community . . . a “family” atmosphere. I would say that it was bullshit, but it was true in a way – just about everyone at St. James, me included, came from a fucked-up family, and that was reflected in the way we acted toward each other in school.
 
No shit. Brian  thought with a grimace, recalling the pummeling he’d saw Justin taking at the hands of a bunch of thugs, and remembering the boy’s efforts to start a Gay/Straight student alliance. And they say kids don’t learn anything at home.
 
I think that I thought I knew Justin Taylor because I’d known “Justins” my entire life – blond, blue-eyed, good-looking, from a “good” family, and smart. I’m related to “Justins.” My parents expected me to marry a “Justin” one day and give them blond, blue-eyed grandchildren all ready to perpetuate our well-established, fucked-up legacy.
 
Maybe that’s why I ignored him for so long – he wasn’t anything new to me, and since I liked girls, he didn’t really register with me. Neither did any of the other fair-haired, light-eyed guys at St. James – guys like Chris Hobbes, the guy who would almost take Justin’s life.
 
Brian’s throat tightened at the mention of Justin’s attacker and of the stark reality of how close the attack came to being fatal. If the bat had hit an inch or two farther one way or the other, the boy would have been dead before he hit the concrete. Brian took a sip of water to work some moisture into his dry mouth, took a deep breath, and then continued.
 
I’d never equate Justin with Chris, though – not even in the days before Justin was bashed. Chris was a jock, you see. Quarterback for our football team. A big man on campus who wasn’t all that bright, but was big, athletic and loved to brag about how many girls he fucked and how much money his parents were going to spend on a new car for graduation. Justin was never boastful like that – he wasn’t exactly quiet, though, either. He spoke up a lot in class and he always had a lot of intelligent things to say. Plus, he was an artist. A really good one. He and I had Honors and AP art together, and any time the teacher picked out a drawing or a painting to gush over, it was sure to be Justin’s.
 
Wowing them even back then, eh Sonnyboy? Brian glanced over to where Justin was talking animatedly to the stoner behind the counter. The hazel eyes took in the lean form, clad in his usual uniform of jeans and hooded sweatshirt. Kid’s gonna be famous some day . . . he’ll blow us all out of the water. Maybe . . . maybe it’s a good thing it ended – we ended – when we did . . . I would have only held him back . . . Brian took another sip of water and continued to read.
 
Also, Justin had a really nice voice. He was in boy’s chorus until we were juniors, and he always got to sing lead tenor parts. It was nice to hear, and I kind of wondered why he stopped going. Maybe it was a voice change thing, or something.
 
He was in chorus? Brian smothered an incredulous chuckle. Now I understand how he could scream so loud in bed.
 
But for all that, Justin and Chris might as well have been the same person to a girl like me, someone who’d seen different variations of both my entire life. And all of them wearing the same uniform – whether it was the St. James blue or the corporate grays and blacks. And I wouldn’t know the difference between them until the fall of my senior year in high school on a day that I don’t think I’ll ever forget. It was before school, and everyone was out on the mall doing what St. James kids did before school – talk about the parties, the cars, the shopping trips they were going on, the shrinks . . . and about how much they hated their parents. I was among the cluster of kids just talking to hear my own voice, not really listening to anything I, or anyone else was saying. I was checking out one of the cheerleaders – I thought she’d smiled at me in Chem the day before – and I was pretty much just focusing on her, when I heard these tires screeching.
 
That wasn’t a big deal – just about everyone in the jock squad had a car, and they always liked cutting it close to the start of classes, just to make an entrance. So I didn’t look to see who it was . . . until I heard people muttering and laughing around me. I couldn’t hear all that they were saying, but I heard one word loud and clear: Faggot.
 
That’s when I started paying attention, and I looked to where everyone – and I mean everyone – was looking. I saw a jeep . . . it was black, and nice. Again, nothing I hadn’t seen a billion times before. Except . . . this one had the word FAGGOT spray-painted on its side.
 
Brian snickered at the memory of his and Mikey’s trip to Justin’s school. He’d never forget the look on Michael’s face . . . nor would he forget the look on Marty Ryder’s face when he’d seen the damage done to the company car. Before that day, Brian hadn’t seen anyone actually turn blue before.
 
FAGGOT. There it was, as clear as day, blinking like a neon sign. FAGGOT. It seemed to get bigger and darker the more I looked at it, and I remember feeling panicky and scared, afraid that it was blinking right at me, singling me out as the dyke. The queer. The aberration of humanity that I was brought up to believe gays and lesbians were.
 
But no one was looking at me . . . they were all watching that jeep and the people who came out of it. One of those people was the driver - a tall guy, really nicely dressed. He didn’t look the least bit concerned that his car had been trashed, and in fact, he looked so nonchalant about it all that it almost seemed as if he’d written it himself.
 
Yeah, right. In those colors? Brian grimaced. Only a breeder and the deluded queens who compliment Emmett’s clothes have taste that bad.
 
The second person out of the jeep . . . was Justin Taylor. He looked a little nervous, but not scared. Nowhere near as scared as I felt just looking at that car. And Justin had driven in it, and was being gawked at by practically the whole school. Somebody yelled something to Justin; I couldn’t hear what it was, but I could tell by the laughter that it had been a fag joke. Justin didn’t answer him, but the guy with him did. I couldn’t hear what he said, either, but the kid who’d said something in the first place turned so pale and got up the steps so fast, I knew it was a good comeback.
 
Yeah . . . I’m brilliant just coming down off a high.
 
The bell rang, but no one moved. Everyone was waiting to see what Justin and the guy were going to do. Were they gonna make out right there? Were they gonna hug or anything? Who was the other guy? He didn’t go to St. James . . . maybe he went to one of the colleges –
 
They thought I was a college kid? Hmm . . . maybe I should reorder that anti-aging cream . . .
 
-- But I think maybe we were all just waiting for Justin to slink away, or run away maybe, with his head down and his face red. I think we were all waiting for Justin to feel mortified and ashamed of being caught coming out of car marked FAGGOT.
 
That didn’t happen though. Not that day, or any other. Justin didn’t even seem to notice us. He and the other guy were talking, not paying attention to anyone else, and you could they weren’t just friends or acquaintances. They had it bad for each other; it was written all over their faces.
 
Brian blinked hard. Had he been that transparent that early? Christ . . . maybe he was losing a foothold on the callous asshole persona that he’d so easily slipped into. Something had to be wrong if some 17-year-old chick could cut through the fine wall of bullshit to get to the heart of the matter. But then, some 17-year-old guy had been able to pierce the walls with more ease than Brian cared to admit, so maybe . . .
 
Then Justin came up the stairs and into school, smiling like I’d never seen . . . like he’d just hit the lottery or maybe he’d gotten a pass on exams for fall term. He looked at peace and just . . . so . . . happy. He’d been outed in front of the entire student body, and he just grinned through it all, like it was the best thing that happened to him. It was all I could think about that day – Justin and the guy in the jeep. I wondered how long they’d been lovers. I wondered where Justin had met him. People like Justin and me, from families like ours, just didn’t come in contact with the type of person the driver of that car seemed to be – so totally in control and unconcerned about whether or not he fit in. I’d never seen a guy like that before in my life, and I didn’t think I ever would again. And I didn’t – until a warm night 10 months later at the Radisson Deauville downtown. It was the night of my senior prom, and I was there to take pictures as a favor to a friend on yearbook who wanted to enjoy herself and not have to run around snapping photos. The night was going as planned, I guess. Girls in dresses more than the GNP for most third-world countries, guys in tuxedos they wouldn’t look at again ever. Boring. Stupid. Lame. I was so falling asleep, and the music wasn’t much better. I was totally thinking about bailing, and then . . . he walked in. Jeep Guy. He walked right past me, looking just killer in an all-black suit and a white scarf. Totally hot. Even I noticed that.
 
Jesus . . . what is it with me and dykes? They must not be making strap-ons like they used to. Brian flipped the page and as once again met with the image of him and Justin dancing. He gazed the photo for a long time before continuing to read.
 
He drew a lot of stares from people who recognized him from that day. But if he noticed, he didn’t act like it. Yeah, he looked around a little, but he didn’t stop walking until he found Justin. I got a little closer when they all got together, because I wondered how it was all going to shake out. Justin had come to the prom with a girl – a hot one –
 
That got a chuckle from the executive. Well, it’s good to know if Daphne wants to graze on the other side of the fence for awhile, she’ll have ‘em already lined up.
 
-- and I guess I thought there might be some fireworks. Justin was pretty openly out by then, and everyone knew that his “date” was really just a good friend. Though there had been rumors that the two of them had actually slept together. But people at St. James made shit up all the time – that probably never happened.
 
The older man’s laughter soon turned into a coughing fit, and he drained his water glass in attempt to calm down. Ignoring the looks of concern and annoyance shot his way, he shook his head and allowed himself a moment before he dove back in.
 
I saw the guy say something to Justin’s date, but I noticed he was staring at Justin the whole time. Justin’s date kind of patted him on the shoulder . . . or maybe she hugged him. I wasn’t sure, because I wasn’t at a good angle to see, and there were people who were starting to gather around, staring at them. I thought maybe the guy – I found out later that his name was Brian -- had come to whisk Justin away from the lame-ass dance. I was just getting over being jealous about that when I saw the guy take Justin’s hand . . . and lead him not toward the exit, but to the dance floor. People on either side of them just scurried out of their way and huddled to the side, leaving the floor to them. The dee jay cued up a song, a song I never heard before, but I’ll never forget as long as I live. It’s called “Save the Last Dance For Me” –
 
Brian felt the lump return as the music began in his ears, the lyrics looping through his brain. You can dance . . . every dance with the guy who gives you the eye, let him hold you tight . . . He swallowed hard, banishing the song from his mind. The last few paragraphs swam before his eyes, and he wiped at them with a napkin, careful to not drop tears on the page.
 
-- The song is beautiful, but that’s not why I won’t forget it. It was them. It was the way they moved together . . . so perfectly attuned to each other. They didn’t take their eyes off each other, and as far as they were concerned, the rest of us might as well have not even been there. They were in their own little world, except, they were letting us get a glimpse of it . . . and it was the most beautiful thing I’d ever seen. That’s what I thought when I watched them dance together, and then kiss later, right in front of all of us. I remember thinking not that Justin was brave – which he definitely was – or that he was being a total selfish bastard for causing such a scene at the prom. Watching them, all I remember thinking that Justin was lucky – damned lucky – that he’d found love. He wasn’t slinking around, acting ashamed that the love he found was that of a man’s – he was proud of it. He celebrated it; they both did. They danced as if it was the most natural thing in the world to them, as if there was nothing wrong with it . . . because they understood then what I understand now -- that there wasn’t anything wrong with it. They reveled in that truth and in each other. And it . . . was . . . beautiful. Beautiful. My hands shook so much, I could barely hold the camera, but somehow, I managed to calm myself to get off a shot . . . and the moment I captured can be seen here on this page.
 
His eyes flicked up to the picture again, then back down.
 
And that was the moment – my moment – of truth. That I wanted what Justin had: that surety of self. That freedom to just be . . . me. To stop hiding and believing that my sexual orientation was something sick and shameful. I felt like a fool, all at once, because their dance exposed people like me – people who cower in their closets, too afraid to speak what’s in our hearts. I felt ashamed, thinking of the times I’d walked down the hall and saw Chris Hobbes and his goons pushing Justin into a locker, and I did nothing except keep on walking and pretend I saw nothing. I felt stupid for all the times I laughed at a queer joke, for all the times I let my mother set me up with the neighbor boys, and for all the times I pretended just the thought of homosexuality disgusted me. It was then that I decided that I needed that same peace of mind Justin had, and that same freedom. I was tired of hiding and the lies. I decided that that night, I was going to be brave for once and tell my parents that I was a lesbian – and give them a chance to get to know the real me.
 
I didn’t do it, though – not that night. I never got the chance. As soon as I got home, I turned on the news. Chris Hobbes had bashed Justin in the head with a baseball bat after our prom, and Justin spent days in the hospital fighting for his life, and weeks after that just recovering. Chris was brought to trial and “punished” for his actions with a suspended sentence and community service. I remember on the day the sentence came down, my dad shook his head and tsked about “the poor Hobbes boy who could have played for the Steelers some day, but had his football career ruined by those fucking fags.” He didn’t talk about the picture that ran with the news story of the sentencing – a picture of Justin being taken out of an ambulance, covered in blood.
 
That image surfaced in his brain, and Brian winced, then spun around to look at Justin still standing at the counter, hazel eyes raking the slender form if only to reassure himself that Justin was whole and breathing and healthy - even if he wasn't his anymore. Breathing a little easier, barely, Brian's eyes whipped over the last two paragraphs.
 
Honestly, I didn’t want to see that photo, either. It was the picture of violence and of hate. And that was not what I wanted to remember about that night. I wanted to remember the grace, the comfort and the love I saw between two men. Two men who loved each other. I wanted to remember their smiles, the way they looked at each other. Their kiss. So when my editors decided to give me this column, and asked me to speak about my experience coming out, I dug out my “mementos” from St. James, and I found this picture and asked them to run this in tribute to a love between men and as an apology to Justin and to all the “Justins” like him that I thought I knew, but didn’t really. Because he didn’t deserve that bashing; I did. And people like me. Fakers like me. Liars like me. Sure, I’m out and disowned now, and “dead” to my parents, but when it counted – when I could have stood up for myself like Justin did, I cowered like . . . like a scared little dyke, and let someone else take the bat upside the head. I’ll never forgive myself for that, but maybe by telling my story, and by extension, Justin and Brian’s, some young queer  out there will do what I never had the guts to do and what Justin did . . . take a stand, come out and be proud about it. And show the Chris Hobbes’ of the world that we “helpless little gays” can bash back – but we don’t need to take the pussy’s way out sneak up behind someone to do it.
 
Looking at this picture again, it just makes me feel warm and tingly all over (no, not that way!) And I wonder what Justin is up to now. Like I said, we never really talked and we never really hung in the same circles. He’s recovered from the bashing, I’ve heard, and he’s in arts school in Pittsburgh and doing well. I hope, though, that wherever he is and whatever he’s doing, that he and Brian are still dancing, and still saying “fuck you” to whoever tries to give them shit. This time, guys, I’m right there with you – to the hilt. Fuck it all. I’m not afraid any more.
 
Brian’s eyes were lingering over the last words when a pale hand placed a steaming mug in front of him. “Sorry that took so long. The steamer’s on the fritz.” Justin resumed his seat, pushing a napkin and a spoon toward the older man. “The guy looked in the back for nonfat milk  . . . he says they didn’t have any. Sorry.”
 
“S’okay,” Brian said quietly, still looking at the page. He took the spoon and began to stir absently, halting only when he heard Justin’s laughter. “What?” He asked, looking up.
 
“Brian, this isn’t a mocha . . . it’s hot chocolate.” Justin leaned forward. “With whipped cream on top! You can’t stir it. You have to spoon off the cream and eat it before it melts.”
 
The executive eyed the white swirl skeptically. “What if I want it to melt? Might dilute some of the sugar.”
 
Justin rolled his eyes. “You could do that with regular cream. Whipped cream is meant to be savored in its natural form.”
 
“There’s nothing natural about anything that’s squirted out of a can, Sunshine.” Brian grinned at Justin’s outraged look, then grabbed his spoon and dug in. “Fuck . . . is there an actual liquid underneath all this shit?”
 
“They really load you up, which is how it’s supposed to be. It is bar none the best hot chocolate I’ve ever had.”
 
“Yeah, well, I’ll defer to you, the expert,” Brian muttered, shoveling in a mouthful of the foamy substance. It was sweet, but not cloyingly so, and nicely flecked with cinnamon. Brian took another spoonful and downed it, savoring the cool cream as it trickled down his throat. Going in for his third heaping spoon, he noticed a pair of amused blue eyes watching him. The spoon hovered in the air. “What?”
 
“You like it?” Justin was grinning from ear to ear.
 
“It’s not bad.” Brian made his voice as casual as he could, which wasn’t very easy, as he was holding a dripping spoon in midair.
 
“This place delivers, you know. You could have one of these every day. . .”
 
“And gain about 50 pounds in a month? Forget it. I already feel the fat cells expanding on my delts” Brian sheared off another scoop. “Besides, my office is nowhere near here . . . if they delivered it, all the cream would melt . . . and what good would that be?”
 
Justin positively beamed at the older man. “That’s true, Bri. See? You’re learning!”
 
“Learning . . .” Brian murmured. Glancing down at where the magazine lay between them, he worried his lower lip between his teeth. “Yeah. I suppose I am.” He stared at the pages a moment longer, then put the spoon down. Looked up into Justin’s eyes. “Did you read any of this?” He pointed to the magazine.
 
“You kidding? I read all of it. Like 50 times.” Justin looked at the magazine, as well. “From the minute Daphne showed it to me, I seriously have not let it out of my sight. I mean, I mainly have been looking at the picture, but I’ve read that article backwards and forwards.”
 
“She’s a decent writer.” Brian downed more whipped cream. “That, or she’s got a pretty good editor.”
 
“I think she might have been on the newspaper staff,” Justin said, frowning thoughtfully. “I don’t remember her being in my AP English class, but she might have been in Honors English with some of the jock breeders like Hobbes. I dunno.” He smiled suddenly. “Wasn’t it cool how she described that morning with the jeep? It would have been even cooler if she’d heard what you’d said to that asshole Tim Blevins.”
 
“Mmm hmmm.” Brian grinned back, careful to lighten his tone. “And I didn’t know you were a choir boy, Sunshine . . . you never sung for me – not words I could understand, anyway.”
 
“Shut up, Brian, I wasn’t a choir boy.” The blond blushed. “I was a tenor in boy’s chorus . . . for like a year or two.”
 
“Or three. Until your voice changed.”
 
“Fuck you! That’s not why I left! I just didn’t have time to fit it in with art stuff—”
 
“Poor Sunshine . . . couldn’t get hit those high ‘E’s in Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star –” Brian smirked, licking white foam off his lips.
 
“We did not sing shit like that.” Justin did his best to glower. “We sung hard stuff – Messiah, Dominus Vobiscum –”
 
Old MacDonald.” Brian picked his mug up and took a sip. “This Old Man . . .”
 
“Uhm . . . Gloria Tibi . . .” Justin’s mouth was beginning to twitch at the corners. “. . . Shenandoah . . .”
 
“And, of course, that old classical standard,” Brian took a huge gulp from the mug and set it down. “That piece of technical mastery. Let me see if I remember how it goes . . .” He cleared his throat, and began in a falsetto voice, “The itsy-bitsy spiiider went up the water spout! Down came the rain and –”
 
“Brian!” Justin giggled, ducking his head. “Will you shut up –”
 
“—washed the spider out! C’mon Sunshine, sing along!” Brian wiggled his fingers in the boy’s face, and pointedly ignored the stares and comments of the other patrons. “And then came the sun and dried up – hey!” The exec tried to look put out when the teen grabbed his hands, barely able to hold on because he was laughing so hard. “I was just getting to the good part –”
 
You . . . are such . . . a freak,” Justin gasped in between breathless laughter. “Jesus, Brian . . . sugar fucks you up more than E does . . . it’s – it’s scary . . .”
 
“I just thought you might want to relive some of the highlights of your youth.”
 
“That wasn’t a highlight, trust me.” Justin let go of the older man’s hands, a little reluctantly, Brian noticed with no small amount of pleasure. “It was all right for a couple of years, and I liked to sing, but I needed more time to spend with my art. Plus, there was nobody hot in chorus. There’s never anybody hot in chorus.”
 
You were there,” Brian said softly, staring at the boy through hooded eyes. “So that theory’s fucked.”
 
Justin reddened prettily, and gave Brian one of his patented Sunshine smiles. “You’re so full of shit.”
 
“Close – I’m full of chocolate.” Brian stared into his cup. “Drinking this stuff is like mainlining saccharine.”
 
“Then why don’t you just stop drinking it? I could get you something else . . .”
 
“I didn’t say it wasn’t good.” He warmed under Justin’s smile, studying the blond boy intently. He was glad that they were able to talk like this . . . joking around, easy like the old days. The days before . . . everything went to shit between them. Brian wasn’t one who tolerated awkward silences or sputtering conversation, and the one thing he feared upon meeting Justin was that the boy would be fidgety and uneasy around him. He was happy to have been wrong. Guess the Fiddler hasn’t totally poisoned his mind against me entirely yet . . . it has only been a couple of months.
 
 “Hey.” Brian said softly, “You all right? I mean about this.” He looked at the pages between them. “I’m glad Daphne was there for you to talk to.” I should have been there, too. He paused, wondering where that thought had come from. “I’m glad you let me know about this before someone I heard about it from one of the guys or from the Queer Moral Majority looking for more reasons to roast my balls over an open fire.”
 
“Yeah, I wanted to give you a heads up.” Justin turned his attention back to the page. “God . . . I wish I could remember this. I mean, really remember. Daphne tried to describe some stuff, kinda the way you two tried before, but it didn’t really help.” He sighed softly. “I love this picture. They were right. Everybody was right. We did look amazing together.” He gave Brian a shy smile.
 
Brian was silent a minute. “Yeah . . . I guess we weren’t too bad.”
 
“Yeah . . .” The blond continued looking down. “Maybe . . . maybe if Daph does get in touch with Teren and she has more pictures or something, maybe that’ll help me remember. I mean, until I saw this, I’d almost forgotten about my dream . . . the dream I was telling you about earlier.” He looked up, and Brian was nearly knocked to the floor under the intense gaze of those blue eyes. “Um . . . it was a dream, right? And not, um . . . not a memory?”
 
Brian winced at the cadence of hope that was evident in the boy’s voice. And then you’d tell me that you loved me . . . The executive closed his eyes briefly, biting back a stab of pain. He wished he could lie to the boy and tell him what he thought the blond wanted to hear. But looking into those beautiful blue eyes, Bran was aware that he just couldn’t do it. Even if he thought that by lying, he could make everything right between them, Brian just couldn’t. They’d been through so much already, so many half-truths and outright lies and misunderstandings. He wasn’t going to add to the pile.
 
“Yeah.” It was an effort to keep his voice from cracking, but somehow Brian managed it. “It was a  . . . a dream.”
 
The teen swallowed hard, nodding and looking away. “I figured. I just thought maybe . . .” He broke off and shook his head as if to clear it. “Anyway . . . I guess I better get going. I know you have stuff to do.” He glanced at Brian, then away again. “Thanks for coming down. I could . . . um . . . call you again if you want. You know, if Daphne gets in touch with Teren?”
 
Brian stared at the boy until Justin looked at him. “I thought you said you wanted to talk . . . all things considering, I think it’s not a bad idea if we do.”
 
Justin blinked. “Uh . . . I did. Um . . . I do . . . but you have work . . . and I have . . . um . . .” There went the eyes again, staring at something on the far wall.
 
“Work can wait awhile,” Brian said nonchalantly. “But if you have to do something . . . be somewhere . . .” With someone . . .  Brian pursed his lips to keep from asking Justin that. He thought of the Fiddler. Would Justin show him “the” picture, and allow him to comfort him? In his own romantic way? But then, Brian wondered with creased brow, where was the Fiddler the day before, when all this came to light? He recalled hearing someone – Lindsay maybe – saying that Ethan was out and about playing concerts in other parts of the state. Maybe he was off on a road trip.
 
“No, I’m pretty much free.” Justin’s gaze bounced to the empty water glass. “Daph has some huge project to do with her Poly Sci group, and my mom and Molly went to see a movie. I was going to work on my midterm project, but I don’t really feel like it right now.”
 
“Uh huh.” Brian waited for a moment to see if Justin was going to look at him directly any time soon. As soon as the silence between them got heavier than the cream in his chocolate, Brian sighed deeply, and decided to go for it.
 
“What about the Fid- ah, Ethan?” He took a breath. “Are you two hooking up today?”
 
There was another long silence, and Brian was on the verge of asking again in a different way, when Justin very slowly looked up, his face impassive and calm.
 
“Yesterday, after Daph came and got me and showed me this,” he nodded at the magazine, “I don’t think I talked for, like, 15 whole minutes. I read the article, and stared at the picture. Then I read the article some more, and stared some more at the picture. Then I sketched out the picture on the back of a receipt I got from Blockbuster’s.” He paused. “Then me and Daphne came here – not here, to this place -- but here as in to campus. And we sat in her room for another 15 minutes just kind of looking at each other. I think we were both in shock or something.”
 
“I can imagine,” Brian murmured, eyes riveted to the teen’s face.
 
“Daph snapped out of it first. She was sitting on her bed, and I was . . . I was just laying across the floor staring at this . . . at um, at us . . .” Justin swallowed hard. “I don’t know how long I laid there. Awhile. Maybe more than half an hour. Me and Daph talked after that . . . and then out of nowhere, she hands me my cell from my jacket, and says, ‘You’ve gotta call him. You have to tell him.’” Another pause. “So I called.”
 
Brian frowned. “You must not have left a message. I checked my cell after I got out the clubs, and I didn’t have any.”
 
Justin gnawed his upper lip. Then, “She wasn’t talking about you; she was talking about Ethan. She wanted me to call him and tell him . . . that it was over between him and me.” His stare was unwavering. “And . . . I did.”
 
The ad executive was aware that he was desperately craving another one of those chocolates to dull his senses and give him something to do with his mouth, if nothing else. Fearing for his waistline and his sanity, he opted for a more painful and confusing option: continuing the conversation. “I don’t get it.” In his mind, he remembered the two boys walking out of the Rage party together. His next words were tinged with the bitterness that memory awakened within him. “I thought you were in lo – ah, I thought the two of you were getting along just peachily. Building your little artists’ love nest together, snug as two little queer bugs. Happy and content.”
 
Justin shook his head slowly. “I liked Ethan a lot . . . and maybe he even loved me . . . or was getting there. But happy? No . . . I don’t think so. At least, not me. This is happy.” He spread his hand over the page. “Us that night. Maybe I can’t remember it now. Maybe I never will. But I know happy when I see it and feel it  . . . and I see it here. With you. But I don’t feel it there. With Ethan. Not really. And the more I looked at this,” his eyes swept the page, “the more I realized that I probably never would.”
 
The two eyed each other across the table for a good minute, silent, each seemingly waiting for the other to say something. Anything. Then someone – Brian couldn’t determine whether it was a guy or woman – breezed by the table, the pages in the magazine ruffling in the wake of the passage. That sound seemed to wake them both from their dazes. Brian took a deep breath, and studied the boy a minute longer, his eyes probing, searching. Questioning. Within seconds, he saw the answer he was looking for reflected back at him from deep within those blue eyes. Letting his breath out and shaking his head a little, he stood from the table, and fished out a dollar to leave in the tip jar on the counter. That chocolate whatever-it-was had been good. Damned good.
 
“You want to leave a note or something for Daphne? Let her know that you’re splitting?”
 
Justin mulled that for a minute. “I could call her later. I can’t get into her dorm without a key anyway, and I forget which library she said she’d be in. And . . . um . . .” The blush returned, and he ducked his head. “I kinda told her that unless things didn’t, uh, go well . . . I would call her tonight sometime.”
 
Brian laughed softly. When the hell did I get so predictable? “Then let’s get going, Sunshine. I think we’ve wasted enough time already.” He gave him a long look. “Don’t you?”
 
Justin didn’t reply; simply looked at him and gave him a grin that was sunshine personified, before tucking the magazine under his arm and starting for the door. Brian lingered long enough to leave the tip, nod to the comatose-looking counter guy, and adjust his sunglasses before he followed the blond out into the brilliant afternoon.
 

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